TOPEKA — State funding for public schools is unconstitutionally low, according to a court ruling Friday in response to a complicated education finance lawsuit.
The decision could have a major impact on the upcoming legislative session as lawmakers look to adjust school funding and potentially trim state spending to accommodate major income tax cuts Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law last year.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he would appeal the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court.
The ruling calls for lawmakers to essentially start their education finance conversations all over, using the 2008 session as a starting point.
That’s when lawmakers, prompted by a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court ruling, approved a law requiring the state to provide $4,492 in per-pupil base state aid.
The state’s per-pupil aid peaked at $4,400 in 2009 and has fallen. It fell to $3,780 in 2012. Last year, lawmakers approved an increase to $3,838.
“Fundamentally, we believe that the best point at which to begin to effect a cure to the constitutional deficiencies we have found in the reductions in the (per-pupil aid) is to go back to the 2008 session when a constitutionally compliant legislature amended (school finance law) to adjust (per pupil aid) for FY2010 and forward to $4,492,” the court wrote in its judgment.
Brownback, in a prepared statement, said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling given the Kansas Supreme Court’s earlier decision.
“Through today’s ruling, the courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan,” he said. “The Kansas Legislature, not the courts, has the power of the purse and has, in fact, increased total state funding for schools every year during my administration.”
The governor’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment on how the court viewed school finance in light of the massive income tax cuts he signed into law.
Judges said it “seems completely illogical that the state can argue that a reduction in education funding was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and the state’s diminishing resources and at the same time cut taxes further.”
“It appears to us the only certain result from the tax cut will be a further reduction of existing resources available and from a cause, unlike the ‘Great Recession’ which had a cause external to Kansas, that is homespun, hence, self-inflicted,” the judges said.
Parents and school districts had contended the state has failed to live up to its promises to increase elementary and secondary education funding as ordered by the Supreme Court. They say schools have had to make cuts that have hurt student achievement.
Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers called the decision “a win for Wichita kids, for Kansas kids and for the entire state of Kansas.”
“It’s now really in the hands of the Legislature and the governor to resolve the issue,” Rogers said. “They’re telling the Legislature: ‘You have to follow the law that you’ve passed. … You have to fund what you said you were going to fund.’ ”
John Robb, an attorney for the school districts, said the court decision means “that the state must figure out what it costs our schools to do what we ask them to do and then fund that cost. The court sets that benchmark at a base of $4,492 per pupil and orders that amount to be funded.”
Raising per-pupil funding to the level the judges suggest would mean more than $400 million in additional school funding statewide, Robb said, and about $45 million for Wichita, the state’s largest district.
Conservatives say that the state spends far more on schools than is reflected in per-pupil spending, including on pensions and buildings.
And others say schools have hundreds of millions in their savings accounts and that the lawsuit ignores other aspects of school finance.
Dave Trabert, president of the conservative-leaning Kansas Policy Institute, said the ruling could lead to big tax increases or huge cuts in state spending on other services.
“It’s very unfortunate that the courts have effectively ordered an almost $600 million annual tax increase on citizens,” he said.
Trabert said the state should appeal the decision, create a new formula and focus more on student achievement.
The judges barred lawmakers from further cuts to per-pupil spending but also acknowledged the state would likely appeal the findings.
Schmidt, the Kansas attorney general, filed notice Friday that the state would appeal the Shawnee County District Court decision.
“Today’s ruling has enormous consequences for the State of Kansas,” he said in a written statement. It’s unclear how quickly the case would be heard.
Incoming Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said the ruling isn’t likely to affect lawmakers’ decisions in the first week or two of the legislative session.
He plans to have someone thoroughly explain the 245-page judgment to his committee to ensure lawmakers understand what it means.
Abrams said he isn’t a lawyer but that the court may be overstepping its authority in telling the Legislature what to do.
“They can say it’s unconstitutional, but then to say you need to do more, that sounds like it may be going beyond their constitutional authority,” he said. “How is it possible for one constitutional body to tell another constitutional body what it shall do?”
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, applauded the ruling.
“I am particularly pleased that the court acknowledges that Governor Brownback’s tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations directly conflict with our constitutional obligation to fund public schools," he said in a prepared statement.
“I hope Governor Brownback will now focus his efforts on ensuring that our children receive a quality education and not on punitive measures aimed at our courts.”
In prepared statements, newly minted leaders in the Senate blasted the decision and said the court overstepped its bounds.
“These judges have made themselves the sole arbiters of spending — and by extension, taxation — in Kansas," incoming Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said. “They have demonstrated no regard for the ability of struggling Kansas families to pay higher taxes, if necessary, to meet their demands.”
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said it’s another reason why Kansas should change its judicial selection process.
“By usurping the power of the legislature to appropriate state funds, judges have bestowed upon themselves unprecedented power which is now leading to a constitutional crisis," Bruce said. “There is no better example of why the state of Kansas needs to reform its judicial selection process."
Lawmakers plan to debate that issue as early as next week with a proposed bill that would change the constitution to let the governor select and Senate confirm Kansas Supreme Court and Appellate Court judges. Democrats say the existing judicial nominating committees serve the state well and that conservatives just want to give more power to Brownback and politicize the courts.
In its ruling, the court dug deep into several other school finance lawsuits. The panel of judges acknowledged the complicated issue involves lawmakers, courts, students, teachers and many others.
But it noted the court has a right to issue a ruling, and that prompt action is required because students’ education is at stake.
The court wrote: “… we sincerely believe that the failure to adequately fund the kind of K-12 education that … the Kansas Constitution requires is, similarly, a chain on opportunity, insidious by its likely lifetime effect, and so warranting of immediate attention before such K-12 school opportunities are lost or muted, that any constitutional deficiencies identified warrant sound and prompt response or, in lieu, enforcement measures that do not tolerate delay or leave room for obfuscation that the period from the last (school finance) decision in 2006 to this date unfortunately represents.”
Rogers, speaking Friday on behalf of Wichita Superintendent John Allison, who was ill, acknowledged that district officials had been criticized for taking their case to the courts.
The Wichita district has paid about $725,000 over the past three years to help fund the lawsuit. At the same time, it has cut more than $60 million from the district’s budget – closing several schools, cutting jobs, doing away with high school librarians and fifth-grade strings programs and more – to make up for a shortfall in state funding.
“Somebody asked if I felt like I was vindicated. I don’t think that’s an issue,” Rogers said. “What I really feel like is that kids won. … I’m hoping we can put some of those things back in place that make an impact on each and every child’s life.”
Contributing: Associated Press